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How Sports Psychology Has Helped Athletes

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Being physically dominant is no longer enough to get athletes to the top of their sport, they also need to be just as strong mentally. With young sports stars investing hundreds of hours in the gym to enhance their physique, we’re only just scratching the surface of mental wellbeing and how to unlock full potential with the power of the mind.

People are often quick to judge sports stars for underperforming or ‘bottling it’, but it’s often not as simple as just not being up to it. Sometimes we see the underdog battle to victory even though on paper they shouldn’t have a chance in a matchup. This is largely attributed to mental empowerment and the ability to believe in yourself and maximise determination. Many famous stars have used mental health coaches to improve their ability such as Golden State Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins, whose aptitude and importance to his team has increased since he started in Minnesota.

Before betting on a tournament or player, it’s often best to see if they’ve made any changes to their entourage as a new mental health guide will usually mean they’re more likely to have a newfound belief and perform better than bookies may predict. Some bookmakers offer attractive welcome offers and with such a huge choice of sports available, there are many underdogs to consider backing.

In this article I’ll review how sports psychology has helped athletes enhance their performance.

Training the mind is as important as training the body

NBA

The NBA stars of today are all highly skilled and physically imperious, so what will make the next wave stand out from the crowd? An elite mindset.

Many of the NBA’s young talent are seeking the advice of professional sports psychologists with the ambition to make them a better player and person. Graham Betchart has acquired the services of many elite basketball players such as MVP candidates Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown as well as Slam Dunk Champion Zach LaVine. All of these young role models are setting examples for children watching all over the globe not only due to their high level of excellence, but also their mental stability and calm demeanour when playing.

Mindset is a vital component of success and Betchart presents his clients with coping skills, as well as various practices such as meditation, reciting positivity, visualisation and breathing exercises among other things.

Seeking mental support has long held a stigma in society and sports, but we are now seeing mental health treated with the same level of importance as physical health and the taboo seems to finally have worn off from previous generations. It is clearly a positive factor for the blossoming young stars of the NBA and should become the new normal as athletes look to better themselves as players and as people.

Golf

Golf is known to be as much of a battle with yourself as is it your opponents so mental stability and composure is essential for success. Focus, composure and confidence are the key attributes for an elite golfer and all of them are mental traits. On a local course you’ll hear many profanities, see scorecards ripped and may even see a snapped club or two but you won’t find any of this at the top of the game. The best in the business all make mistakes, but they’re often mentally trained to reset and move on for their own benefit.

It’s important for stars to pick out the right sports psychologist to fit their own personality as getting the right guidance is not a one size fits all scenario.

Legendary psychologist Jos Vanstiphout is a perfect example of this. The Belgian developed a close relationship with multiple major winner Ernie Els and his continued pushing of The Big Easy is what made him compete at the highest level. Vanstiphout was known to get under the skin of his clients which would ultimately strain a lot of his relationships but Els respected the no-nonsense approach of Vanstiphout, and heralded his former friend and mentor after his untimely passing in 2013. Els hasn’t won on the tour in the eight years since which shows the dramatic impact sports psychology had on the champion who has recorded a whopping 71 tour victories over his career.

Mental Health is being prioritised by the FA

Football

According to global players’ union FIFPRO, football players are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems. In a survey published in 2015, FIFPRO revealed that 38% of players who are currently playing and 35% of ex-footballers suffered from depression or anxiety issues during their careers, which shows the devastating impact the nature of the sport can have on individuals.

Media and fans are so consumed by the sport and the huge financial implications associated with the top level of football that it’s often overlooked that many of the athletes are young men living on their own in foreign countries. To exacerbate the anxiety they face, many of their contracts are only short term and with media outlets and social media allowing access to these individuals like never before, one bad performance can mean a barrage of high-profile abuse.

Some players have been vocal on how little the FA have done for mental health, with former Premier League defender Anton Ferdinand criticising the tick box approach the organisation have. Ferdinand has been open about his struggles with the mental side of life since his mother’s passing and how he felt neglected by the game that he loved due to the lack of empathy and support offered to him in the time since. Ferdinand felt that the importance of talking about mental health was often overlooked by the governing body. 

In July 2020 the Premier League recognised the impact on mental health and created the Heads Up campaign, to create a support system and develop mentally healthy clubs at every level of the game. The Duke of Cambridge said that ‘”Not only will [the declaration] benefit future generations who work and play within the game, but it will also send a clear message to football’s millions of fans about the importance of mental health’, and this stark message is welcome in a sport which has historically overlooked the importance of the mind.